The Contentious Job of the Library Director

I’m writing this today in response to what I thought was a good post in Inside Higher Ed. As my friend Scott Walter mentioned to me today, I also would have liked it to not be as much about the management of library resources and collections focused. Hey, can’t win them all. It’s also pretty obvious to me that the struggle surrounding the changing role of the library is not just a “liberal arts colleges” problem. Plenty of my library director colleagues at larger universities feel the daily push and pull for and against change. I do think, however, that drawing attention to the conflict many library directors currently face can start some great conversations. Anytime my friends in university administration send me an article and say, “hey, I’d love your opinion on this,” I think it’s a good thing. That being said, I write this really from mostly my own perspective and from the experiences I know others have had or are going through. I write this as a library director and it is aimed at those of you who are working in a library that is trying to change, or on a campus going through a lot of change, and feel the reality of the difficult task of creating a cohesive vision for change in your library.

The Things You Know and the Things You Don’t

First, your library director is often part of conversations and meetings that include discussions about redefining the library or what else we could also house in the library (which leads to other loaded conversations about weeding, collections, and journals). Hopefully, she or he is fighting the good fight to ensure that whatever happens in the library aligns with what the mission and vision of what an academic library is. You may not be privy to all of these conversations, but you should assume that your leader is thinking of the best course of action for the good of the whole. That’s what we library directors do: we keep all of our constituents in mind and think of how we can serve them, physically and virtually, as best as possible. So. My advice is to trust your leader. If you have questions, ask them. But, be prepared that he or she may not be able to share everything because it’s possible they were told not to.

The Role of Librarians 

I’ve never worked anywhere where all of the librarians agreed with the library director all of the time. But, our job as Directors is not to make everyone love us or every idea we have, though that would be great. We don’t think everyone will always like us either. (Here’s a great blog post on that topic.) Our job, in terms of librarian feedback, is to gather it and consider it when making decisions. Ultimately, the praise will be heaped on the entire organization. But if something goes wrong? Your director usually takes the hit.

But what I would really suggest you do, as the professionals and often members of the faculty, is to ask good questions. Try not to go into a conversation about things that are changing in a defensive way. Try not to take anything personally. Change is hard for everyone and sometimes I think it is hardest in our libraries for our librarians. They were educated, trained, and learned certain ways of doing things and they went into this profession often because they loved the library. The traditional idea of the library. Then, everything within their profession began to change, sometimes rapidly, and some do not want to go along for that ride. That’s fine. If you can’t be constructive and part of the team, if you feel like your role is to fight with your library director just because she or he is changing things, then it might be time to re-evaluate where you work or even what you do.

Including the Library Staff

As much as I can, I try and include library staff in our planning and in assessment and then using data to implement change. When it comes to larger campus conversations about redefining the library, I can only do so much. But, our library staff is the heart of this place and I will always do my best to have their best interests in mind when thinking about where the library is going. But, the reality is that positions change, roles change, space changes. And again, I’d love it if library staff could always be counted on for their flexibility. For me, that is mostly true. My staff are at the core of some of our best changes in policy and services. But the same rules apply in terms of becoming a barrier. Don’t stay if you can’t support the vision. But, as someone who works in the library, I hope you feel engaged in the process of change. I hope you visit other libraries, network with colleagues in the area, and talk about what a modern college library is. I hope you feel like you can bring ideas to the table. If not? Try to talk to your supervisor, or go to your director if you feel like your supervisor is not listening.

The Teaching Faculty

I love my teaching faculty friends. I respect my colleagues on campus immensely. I even understand their struggles with watching a library change from what once was a place that primarily kept all of the books to the place where students are studying, talking, doing projects, and, well, thriving (and loudly!). For my humanist friends, the library is their lab. I get that. In my heart, I am still a disgruntled historian. We may not all always agree, but I would encourage any faculty member to talk to the library director about the role of the library in student learning. How what we’d really love to do is help your students do better work, think critically, and become informed citizens of their communities. We want to help you form students into thinkers, doers, and, sometimes, scholars. Let’s put that at the focus of our vision and maybe the other pieces will fall into place. If you’re concerned about all of the changes at your library and you haven’t talked to your library director about their vision and how your discipline fits into it, maybe you should do that. For you that work in the library, help your director talk with the faculty and the campus staff. Be an ambassador to the changing library and help them understand it is at the heart of student learning.

University Administration

As a library director, I can’t express how important it is to feel like your colleagues in the administration are not just on your side, but understand and share your vision of the future. If you’re in administration and you haven’t talked to your library director about what their vision is, I’d encourage you to do so.

For All of my Fellow Directors 

We are all in a changing atmosphere. I don’t know any of my peers who haven’t had changes happen at their libraries in the past five years. And most of us have endured major changes that include staffing, space changes and renovations, and budget constraints. It disheartens me to read about library directors quitting and being dismissed. It saddens me that such disconnect exists between our administrations, directors, library staff, and faculty. I hope that we all have great peer groups, like I think I do, and that we reach out to them to talk when we’re frustrated. I’ve said before that these are truly lonely jobs, these library director positions. Keep your chin up, fight the good fight, and don’t be afraid to move all of the cheese.


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